Monday, October 31, 2011

Mayor wants cars out of Public Square

Big news on Sunday's Plain Dealer front page: Mayor Frank Jackson tells Steven Litt he wants to close Public Square to cars and make it a huge park.

"I want to see one big square," Jackson told Litt.

The mayor's suddenly talking like the urban optimists I've profiled -- parks advocate Ann Zoller and, in the new November issue of Cleveland Magazine, developer Ari Maron. Like them, the mayor wants to make our public spaces more welcoming to visitors, downtown residents, pedestrians and bikers. He even seems to have had a conversion experience similar to Maron's. Visits to France, Italy and Slovenia have convinced Jackson that we can learn from European town plazas and do more to get people out walking and enjoying downtown.

Politically, this is big for two reasons. Jackson will really have to push for this. Closing Public Square to traffic won't be easy. Commuters will complain. They won't like swinging around a huge traffic circle in the middle of downtown. Buses stop in the square 3,200 times a day, and the RTA will have to find new bus stops for most of them.

But Jackson has a good argument for doing this right now: with the casino, Medical Mart and convention center coming soon, Cleveland is going into the business of attracting visitors to town in a big way. Public Square lies right between the two. Shouldn't it be more inviting?

If he succeeds, a new Public Square could be one of Jackson's signature projects. It could be an answer to critics who complain he's too quiet and has too little vision.

It may have taken him six years to get around to this, but the mayor is doing what leaders do. He's picking up new ideas that are gaining momentum. He's sweeping ideas he doesn't like out of the way (an earlier round of ideas for the square, including the peculiar notion of building a hill over the streets). He's declaring his support for an idea that everyone used to think was off limits.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Joe the Plumber vs. Dennis the Menace? Seriously?

I can see this coming from 100 miles away, streaking toward Cleveland on Route 2 like a drag race between a Ford pickup and a Prius. Everyone from Stephen Colbert to Fox News, from Politico to The Onion, will want a piece of this action. The most cartoon-colorful congressional race in the nation: Dennis "The Menace" Kucinich vs. Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher.

Seriously, it could happen. Joe the Plumber announced his run for Congress this week. Laugh if you want, but the conservative media darling's name recognition seems to have scared Rob Frost, the Cuyahoga County Republican chairman, out of the race.

Now we are faced with the unholy spawn of Republican gerrymandering, a Frankenstein-monster district that has unnaturally stitched Toledo's peculiar politics together with Cleveland's. One congressional race. Two candidates whom the national media doesn't take seriously and who inspire political satirists to new heights of YouTube-able ridiculousness.

Only two things can stop it.

Joe the Plumber isn't running to take Dennis down. He wants to unseat Marcy Kaptur, Toledo's longtime progressive congresswoman. But the impending Kaptur-Kucinich primary is tough to call. Lots of people think Kucinich has the edge. Brent Larkin is the only person I've seen who's explained why Kaptur has a good chance.

Also, Democrats in Columbus have shrewdly used referendum petitions as leverage to try to force a compromise on redistricting and a new map fairer to Democrats. Negotiations might dismantle that ruthlessly gerrymandered lakeshore district.

I'm not going to get into whether Wurzelbacher is actually a serious candidate. Hey, the guy had the good taste to announce his candidacy at Tony Packo's, which wins him points in my book.

My take on the Plumber phenomenon goes back to his first minute of fame. Why is it that he becomes a hero, a celebrity, a political character, just for asking a presidential candidate a tough question?

Joe Wurzelbacher's life changed the day Barack Obama campaigned at a picnic in his neighborhood. Like anyone would, Joe headed over to see what was going on. Like any good citizen who doesn't like a candidate's politics, he got a second with Obama and challenged him.

Though he's a working-class guy, Joe is the type of conservative who doesn't much like progressive taxation. He told Obama that his tax plan -- to raise rates on people making more than $250,000 a year -- would keep him from buying a business. So John McCain championed Joe in a debate, leaving Obama to make the point that most plumbers don't make $250K.

I see why McCain would make Joe a hero. Populist solidarity with the rich is key to the Republican electoral strategy, no matter how illogical liberals think that alliance is.

My question is, why is it so rare to see a voter challenge a presidential candidate? It should happen all the time. We should expect them to face questions in unstaged situations. But hand-shaking and conversation are old-fashioned in an age of security cordons, nine-figure campaign funds, and stage-managed "town hall meetings." Once the candidates get past Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other tiny early-primary states, facing voters one on one is a rare thing.

You can just imagine presidential candidates' strategists looking at Joe's fame and saying, "That's it. After February, none of this 'regular people at a picnic' crap."

They don't want to risk a gaffe, or any cable-ready unscripted moment. But now it's more than that: They don't want to accidentally spawn a congressional candidate.

To read my profile of Kucinich, "The Missionary," click here. To see The Complete Kucinich, an archive of Cleveland Magazine's coverage of Kucinich's career, click here.

(Photo: Rona Proudfoot of Lorain, Ohio)

Monday, October 17, 2011

City council to consider exempting small music clubs from admissions tax

*Updated 10/18

For months, fans of Cleveland’s small music clubs have been challenging the city’s entertainment admissions tax. Now they’ll have some legislation they can get behind.

Councilman Joe Cimperman says he’ll introduce a proposed ordinance tonight or next Monday to exempt clubs with less than 1,000 700* capacity from the 8 percent tax on ticket sales.

“Local music is a huge return on investment in our communities,” Cimperman says. “Without the Beachland [Ballroom], Waterloo [Road] would be less. Without places like the Happy Dog and Brothers, those parts of town would be less.”

Music fans have been questioning the tax since this summer, when the Jackson Administration hit the Beachland with a $400,000 bill for back taxes, penalties and interest. The Plain Dealer broke the news, but Beachland aficionados really started rallying after this Scene cover story, which recounted the club's 11-year history of operating on a budget as thin as a guitar string.

The Beachland and five other local clubs formed the Cleveland Music Club Coalition to fight the tax. They argue that the 8 percent rate is too high compared to other cities (Columbus and Lakewood have no admissions tax, Cleveland Heights levies 3 percent).

“The goal is to support smaller clubs that have a tighter margin to work with, to support local music in the rock capital of the world,” Cimperman says. Other councilmen with music clubs in their wards — Mike Polensek, Jay Westbrook and Matt Zone — have also been working on the issue.

The 1,000 700*-capacity cutoff would exempt a bunch of locally-owned venues, but not their chain-owned competitor, the 1,200-seat House of Blues. One member of the Club Coalition, the Agora, might have to add the tax to some tickets and not others, depending on whether it used its ballroom or main theater.

Cimperman says the exemption won't be retroactive -- which means the Beachland will still have to settle its tax debt.*

Prospects for the proposed ordinance aren’t clear. The admissions tax generated almost $16 million in 2010, a revenue stream Mayor Jackson’s administration may be less than eager to trim in tough budget times. The city already faces a possible $4.5 million dip in admissions tax revenue if the NBA labor dispute scuttles the Cavaliers’ season.

*Update, 10/18: The ordinance was introduced last night, with a cutoff of 700 (not 1,000), and Cimperman, Polensek, Westbrook and Zone as co-sponsors. Clubs that owe back taxes, such as the Beachland and Peabody's, would have to settle their debts before they could qualify for the exemption.

Jackson sounds like he's against the proposal: "People owe, they should pay. We have a city to run. We can't run it on air." See the Plain Dealer story here.